Whether you knew that your spouse was going to file for divorce or it caught you by surprise, being served with a complaint or petition and a summons can be a bit intimidating. Your next step is crucial -- you must file some form of answer in a relatively short period of time so the court knows that you want to be involved in the proceedings. If you don’t respond, your spouse can ask for a default judgment against you and the court may give him everything he asked for in his divorce papers.
Read the Summons
As soon as you receive the divorce papers, read the summons carefully. It will tell you how long you have to file an answer according to your state’s rules. In many jurisdictions, this is only about three weeks, but it may be as long as a month.
Decide How You Will Answer
In most states, you have a few options for answering the petition or complaint. You can file a counterclaim, which serves as your own divorce complaint even though your spouse already filed one. The counterclaim can assert your own grounds for divorce and tell the court what you want the judge to order. If your spouse decides to dismiss his own complaint, thus pulling the plug on the divorce proceedings, a counterclaim keeps the lawsuit alive. The litigation will proceed without him, just as it would if you didn’t file any response and defaulted. You can simply file an answer, a document that responds to what your spouse said in his divorce papers. You can usually include a list of the things you want the judge to order as well. Some states allow you to file both an answer and a counterclaim, responding to your spouse’s complaint and making a case of your own. You also have the option of just filing an appearance in some jurisdictions, a simply statement that tells the court that you want to be involved in the proceedings.
Write Your Response
Some states offer forms for answers, but if yours doesn’t, the format is usually relatively simple. Your spouse’s complaint or petition should be composed in numbered paragraphs. When you write your answer, you’ll number your paragraphs the same way. Then you can admit or deny the statements he makes in each paragraph. For example, he might say in his first paragraph that you were married on June 26, 2005. If this is correct, you would write “admitted” for your first paragraph. But if you were actually married on June 26, 2006, you can state, “denied” and give the correct date. If your spouse says he deserves custody because you’re an unfit parent, you can say “denied” and demand custody yourself, explaining why the court should rule this way. If you want to include a counterclaim, this is a more complex legal document and you might need an attorney to help you draft it.
File Your Answer
File your answer -- and your counterclaim, if you decide to make one -- with the court within the allotted time. You must also serve a copy of your papers on your spouse. Rules for serving your spouse can vary, so check your state’s website or ask an attorney or legal aid how you should go about it. You’ll have to file a statement with the court, attesting that you served your spouse and explaining how you did so. If you miss the deadline for answering provided in the summons, you may be able to file a motion asking the judge for an extension of time.